(Casper Star Tribune, September 11) – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved an aquifer exemption for a coal gasification pilot project in Campbell County this week, drawing criticism from landowners worried that the facility could contaminate a potential source of drinking water.
The decision affirms a ruling by the Wyoming Department of Environment Quality, which gave its blessing to Linc Energy’s request for an aquifer exemption last year.
“WDEQ and Linc have demonstrated that the aquifer proposed for exemption does not currently serve as a source of drinking water and that it cannot now and will not in the future serve as a source of drinking water,” the EPA said in a statement, noting that the coal deposit at the proposed location is large enough to warrant commercial production.
A local landowners group criticized the move, saying the EPA considered only existing water wells in the area and the adequacy of the company’s plans to protect drinking water supplies.
The EPA did not consider the quality of the water on site, which Wyoming regulators found met the standards for drinking water, said Shannon Anderson, an organizer at the Powder River Basin Resource Council in Sheridan.
“We’re evaluating our next steps, which could include a legal appeal,” Anderson said.
State officials also said the site is not likely to serve as a drinking water supply because of the large deposit of coal found there.
A Linc official welcomed the EPA’s decision and thanked DEQ representatives for their “commitment” and “partnership” in marshaling the project through the regulatory process.
“We have multiple operations throughout the globe,” said Brian Duerloo, the company’s manager of clean energy in Wyoming. “Now that we have license to operate, we have to evaluate how this aligns with our other projects.”
He declined to go into details about when construction might begin.
The project has been dogged by environmental concerns. In 2013, regulators in the Australian state of Queensland found elevated levels of benzene, ammonia and other contaminates in groundwater near a similar facility operated by Linc.
The EPA said it reviewed the Queensland findings and concluded that they did not provide any information that should be factored into the exemption request.
The geology in the Australian case was different, as is the technology Linc proposes to use in Wyoming, the agency said. Linc’s operational plans in the Cowboy State are based on lessons learned in Australia, the EPA said.
The EPA’s approval was for a demonstration facility, which will run for 90 to 120 days. Plans call for air to be pumped into the coal seam, oxidizing the coal and turning it into gas. The company aims to use that gas to make products like diesel and jet fuel.
Any expansion of the project would be subject to further review and approval by EPA.